‘Watching football is not a crime’
spiked talks to Amanda Jacks, the woman who helps football fans fight back against overzealous cops and stewards.
How do you spend your Saturday afternoons? Most football fans will be either at the game or checking their phones, radios or Ceefax for the latest score. Not so Amanda Jacks. The former West Ham season-ticket holder will be at home scanning her Twitter feed ready to give advice to fans who have had problems with the police or stewards.
Jacks helped set up the Stand Up Sit Down (SUSD) group that campaigned for standing areas at football grounds. She was fed up with seeing supporters being threatened or ejected for ‘persistent standing’ at Upton Park and decided to do something about it. However, over time the SUSD message board became a vehicle for disgruntled fans from across the country to discuss a wide range of policing and stewarding problems. Jacks worked closely with the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) to help resolve these issues, but, such was the volume of grievances, that she found it impossible to combine her burgeoning advocacy role with her day job in a commercial property firm. Since January, Jacks has been working full-time as a caseworker for the FSF.
The match-day experience has become so gentrified and anaesthetised in the past 20 years that it’s easy to forget that football still remains the most heavily regulated leisure pursuit. Jacks tells me that she has helped around 350 supporters in the last year. She believes this is just ‘the tip of the iceberg’. Many supporters don’t challenge their treatment. ‘Most fans think it’s their lot and put up with it whereas protesters don’t accept it’, she tells me.
What types of complaints does she deal with on a day-to-day basis? ‘Section 5 [of the Public Order Act] is a popular one’, she explains. It is common for football fans to be arrested for the all-purpose crime of ‘causing harassment, alarm or distress’. Who decides if someone has suffered distress or alarm? ‘The police decide’, she says. Another common offence she has to deal with is entering a football stadium while drunk. Isn’t the whole point to have a few drinks and go watch the game? ‘Well, exactly’, she laughs. ‘And you have to be drunk to put up with a lot of the football on display.’
I ask her how the FSF can help fans who feel they have been treated unfairly by the authorities. She advises fans on how to use the procedures for obtaining redress, such as complaining to the Football Ombudsman or the Independent Police Complaints Commission. She also acts as ‘a triage for those fans who need legal representation’, giving out basic advice and referring fans who need representation to law firms, such as Dobsons and Deighton Guedella, who specialise in football-related legal problems.
One of the challenges Jacks faces is overturning what she describes as the ‘arbitrary punishments’ dished out by football clubs themselves. The clubs and police routinely share information. Consequently, if a fan has been arrested at an away game, they often find themselves banned by their club from home matches. As clubs are private institutions they can exclude fans for the flimsiest reasons without due process. Jacks says it can be quite difficult to persuade clubs to back down. ‘Eight of out 10 cases will have to be escalated to the League or the Football ombudsman’, she says. ‘And some clubs don’t recognise the ombudsman.’
She recounts the case of a fan of a Midlands club. ‘He’s a young guy who was a bit pissed. The steward told him to sit down and he playfully tapped him under the chin.’ The fan was arrested, cautioned for common assault and banned from home fixtures. The club refused to allow him back into the stadium unless he signed an Acceptable Behaviour Contract. Under the terms of this Orwellian agreement, the fan was required – among other things – not to use foul and abusive language, not to behave in a lewd manner and to stay in his allocated seating area. This kind of disproportionate and draconian punishment for a relatively innocuous example of over-exuberance is something Jacks is regularly having to deal with.
As well as helping fans obtain redress, Jacks also works proactively with clubs, supporters’ groups and the police to prevent problems arising in the first place. She is at pains to point out that not all police officers view football fans as troublemakers. ‘Many senior officers understand our concerns’, she says. ‘But that doesn’t always translate to junior officers.’
However, while there may be more ‘forward thinking senior police officers’ there are evidently still plenty who aren’t. One of the cases she is currently handling concerns Liverpool fans who were travelling by coach to the Carling Cup tie at Exeter on 23 August 2011. The away supporters were told by the police that their coaches were not allowed to arrive in the town any earlier than 5.45pm – kick off was 7.45pm – otherwise they would be turned back. Exeter versus Liverpool is hardly an incendiary fixture, yet police-imposed restrictions on the movement of fans is a problem with which many travelling supporters are all too familiar.
Jacks tells me about another case of a 13-year-old girl who suffered a broken arm and lacerations after being attacked by a police dog at a recent Championship game. ‘I could talk about stories like this all night’, she says.
This is a lady on a mission to tackle injustice. As well as dispensing advice, she is planning to organise legal-observer training courses for fans. She is passionate about fans standing up for their rights. ‘I want to educate supporters and make them realise that they don’t have to put up with over-zealous policing’, she tells me. ‘We want more fans to come forward. As the FSF slogan says: “Watching football is not a crime”.’
Football fans, many of whom are white, working-class men, are not the typical poster boys for the civil-liberties lobby. And yet football has long been a test bed for the erosion of liberties. That’s why we need more campaigners like Amanda Jacks who aren’t prepared to sit down and shut up, but who are challenging the criminalisation of football fans.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.
Amanda Jacks’s Twitter handle is @FSF_FairCop.